Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Removing Christmas (and Everything Else) from the School Calendar

Here’s a lesson in how to irritate everybody. Last week, the Board of Education in Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, voted to remove references to religious holidays from its public school calendar. Starting next year, students will have off for “Winter Break” rather than Christmas, “Spring Break” rather than Easter, and two unnamed holidays rather than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The decision came after a Muslim group requested that schools also close for a Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha. Rather than declare Eid a holiday, the board decided to remove religious references altogether.

The board apparently believed that retaining the names of religious holidays is constitutionally problematic. That is not so. Naming school holidays after widely celebrated religious observances does not violate any of Supreme Court’s many Establishment Clause tests, even the so-called endorsement test. Consider Christmas, for example. Closing on December 25 does not endorse the religious meaning of the holiday. It simply acknowledges the fact that most students and staff would stay home. And as everybody, including the state and federal governments, refers to the holiday as Christmas, it’s natural for the school calendar to do the same. In fact, expunging the word “Christmas,” after it has been in the calendar for so long, suggests hostility to the religious meaning of the holiday. Such a suggestion itself creates problems under the endorsement test.

What about the fact that the schools recognize the holidays of some religions, but not others? Doesn’t that suggest hostility for religions the schools ignore? Obviously some Montgomery Country Muslims took it that way, and one must respect their feelings. But there’s a very good administrative reason why Montgomery County schools don’t close on Eid. Only about 1% of the county’s population is Muslim. There are simply not enough Muslim students and staff to justify closing the schools–just as there are not enough Hindus to justify closing schools on Hindu holidays, or Buddhists to justify closing schools on Buddhist holidays. That’s not a reflection of disrespect for those religions, but an acknowledgement of demographic reality. It’s worth noting that the Montgomery County schools excuse absences for Muslims who observe Eid.

I could explain why the other Establishment Clause tests also would allow schools to close for some religious holidays but not others, but there’s no point belaboring things. The Constitution does not require what the board did. But the board’s decision is worse than wrong; it’s pernicious. Striking the names of religious holidays has only served to create religious conflict. Many Christians and Jews have expressed dismay, as has the Muslim organization that requested the Eid holiday in the first place. That organization now worries, not implausibly, that angry parents and students will blame Muslims for the board’s decision. That would be unfair. The organization didn’t ask the board to rename these other holidays; that was entirely the board’s doing. But many people will ignore that fact.

In a pluralistic society like ours, respect is a crucial value. Respect for religious traditions other than one’s own promotes harmony and social peace. But recognizing a religious holiday that many students and staff observe doesn’t express disrespect for other religions, and the board’s decision to rename Christmas–as well as the other holidays–has done nothing to promote religious harmony. The board has created an entirely unnecessary, uncomfortable situation in which everyone feels aggrieved. One could hardly call that progress.

Kobani, Then and Now

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Kobani, Syria, Last Weekend

For the past several weeks, the world has been watching Kobani (in Kurdish, Kobanê), a small city on the Syrian-Turkish border. In September, militants from ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group that has declared a restored caliphate in the Middle East, laid siege to the city, which is mostly Kurdish and currently in the hands of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that opposes the Assad government. Kobani’s strategic significance is debatable, but the city has symbolic importance, and its fall would be a huge morale boost for ISIS. Consequently, the US has instituted a bombing campaign to push ISIS back. As of this weekend, the siege was at a standstill.

A bewildering set of parties is involved. In addition to the two main antagonists, ISIS and the YPG, there are the Iraqi Kurds – who, unlike the YPG, do not have good relations with the PKK, the Kurdish militants who seek to establish a homeland in Turkey – the Free Syrian Army, part of the “moderate” secular opposition to Assad; the Assad regime itself; the Iraqi government; regional powers like Turkey and Iran; and the international anti-ISIS coalition, led by the US. Each of these parties has its own interests to protect, which makes cooperation very difficult. Most observers think the city will fall unless outsiders supply substantial ground troops. That seems unlikely. Although Turkey last week said it would open its border and allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters, as well as members of the Free Syrian Army, to reinforce Kobani, it’s not clear whether that will occur.

One group that does not have a significant representation in Kobani is Christians. This is ironic, because Kobani was in fact founded by Christians during the last great wave of persecution in the region, about 100 years ago. In the wake of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic-cleansing campaign that killed millions of Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Armenian refugees established a village near a recently-built train station on the Baghdad Railway, at a place called Ayn al-Arab in the Aleppo Province. The Kurds came later and called the village “Kobani,” apparently after the German company that had built the railway.

The Turks pushed many of Kobani’s Armenians further south. Those who avoided deportation built churches and schools in Kobani, but most eventually decided to move on, to other cities in Syria or to Soviet Armenia. Doubtless, many of them wished to leave a place with so many bad memories. According to political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center, the area surrounding Kobani is known as “‘the Armenian cemetery’ because of the thousands of Armenians who died there during the deportations. It was a terrible place when the Armenians arrived back then, and the area has a tragic history. It is being repeated now.”

Hardly anyone today remembers the Christian presence in Kobani. I didn’t know the story, myself, until a friend said his grandfather, one of the refugees, once had a shop there. The churches are gone. New humanitarian disasters succeed the ones of 100 years ago; history moves on. Still, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the great suffering that led to Kobani’s foundation, and the great suffering that continues there now. It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Photo from CNN

The Obama Effect?

President_Barack_ObamaIn The American Interest this week, sociologist Peter Berger has a provocative essay on the controversy over the City of Houston’s demand for sermons several pastors have delivered on the topics of homosexuality and gender identity. Berger says the roots of the controversy lie in the Obama Administration’s disregard for religion. He makes a powerful point, but I wonder whether he overstates things.

The City of Houston’s demand came in the form of subpoenas in a lawsuit over a petition to repeal a city anti-discrimination ordinance. As I explained in an earlier post, the city’s demand was outrageous, even given the freewheeling standards of American litigation, and the city has in fact narrowed its request. Some smart observers think this “narrowing” is just a publicity stunt. In my opinion, the new subpoenas, which ask only for communications that relate to the petition and ordinance themselves, stand a better chance of surviving. We’ll see how the court rules.

But leave aside that narrow, procedural matter for now. Here’s a more important question. Why did the city issue the offensive subpoenas in the first place? America has a long tradition of respecting religion, and the idea that government would demand to know what pastors were saying in their own churches should have set off all kinds of alarms. We don’t do that sort of thing in our country.

Berger says the episode reflects America’s decreasing regard for religion and religious believers. And he lays the blame largely at the door of the Obama Administration:

This episode in the heart of the Bible Belt can be placed, first, in the national context of the Obama presidency, and then in a broad international context and its odd linkage of homosexuality and religious freedom. I’m not sure whether President Obama still has a “bully pulpit”; at this moment even close political allies of his don’t want to listen to his sermons, if they don’t flee from the congregation altogether. All the same, every presidency creates an institutional culture, which trickles down all the way to city halls in the provinces. This administration has shown itself remarkably tone-deaf regarding religion. This was sharply illuminated at the launching of Obamacare, when the administration was actually surprised to discover that Catholics (strange to say!) actually care about contraception and abortion. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has repeatedly demonstrated that it cares less about religious freedom as against its version of civil rights. Perhaps one reason for the widespread failure to perceive this attitude toward the First Amendment is that Barack Obama is seen through the lens of race–“the first black president”. I think a better vision comes through the lens of class–“the first New Class president”–put differently, the first president, at least since Woodrow Wilson, whose view of the world has been shaped by the culture of elite academia. This is evident across the spectrum of policy issues, but notably so on issues involving gender and religion.

Now, there’s much in what Berger says. The Obama Administration has shown little enthusiasm for religious freedom. True, the Administration  intervened recently to protect a prison inmate’s right to wear a 1/4-inch beard for religious reasons. But in the two major religious freedom cases of its tenure, Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration created obstacles for religious freedom in needlessly inflammatory ways. It insisted on the Contraception Mandate, even though it knew the mandate would gravely trouble some Christians and even though alternatives existed that could have given the Administration most of what it wanted. It accepted compromise only grudgingly and litigated the case to the bitter end. And in Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration argued that the Religion Clauses had nothing at all to do with a church’s decision to select its own minister–a position a unanimous Supreme Court rejected as “remarkable.”

Still, when it comes to a declining respect for religion in America, I’m not sure the Administration is a cause so much as an effect. Perhaps its actions reflect a broader cultural shift to secularism. Most likely, there is mutual reinforcement. A growing cultural secularism, embodied, for political purposes, in the Democratic Party, contributed to the President’s election; and the President’s election in turn has contributed to a growing secularism. This growing secularism leads many people to view religion–traditional religion, anyway–with antipathy. And that antipathy leads to things like the Houston subpoenas. It’s a vicious circle–or virtuous one, I suppose, depending on your view of things.

Also, it’s not clear things are so bad for traditional religion now, or that they were so good before. As Yuval Levin wrote recently in First Things, religious conservatives seem to have overestimated their cultural ascendancy during the Bush Administration–so did their opponents, as I recall; remember those cartoon maps of “Jesus Land”? –and may underestimate their influence today. According to a recent Pew survey, almost 50% of Americans think churches and houses of worship should express their views on political and social issues, an increase of six percent since 2010. Three-quarters of the public think religion’s influence in our national life is declining–and most of those people think it’s a bad thing. If anything, the Obama Administration seems to be contributing to a pro-religion backlash.

Well, these are complicated issues. Berger’s essay is very worthwhile. You can read the whole thing here.

Panel at AAR Meeting Next Month

The Religion and American Law Discussion Group will host a panel at the upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego (November 22-25). Topics will include “Religion and American Law, Applied” and “The Meaning and Ramifications of Greece v. Galloway.” Speakers include Dusty Hoesly (UC-Santa Barbara), Michael Barber (UC-Santa Barbara), Michael Graziano (Florida State), Charles McCrary (Florida State), Alan Brownstein (UC-Davis), Steve Smith (San Diego), and Steven Green (Willamette). Details about the conference are here.

Podcast on Holt v. Hobbs

Mark and I have recorded another in our podcast series, this time on the “prison beard case,” Holt v. Hobbs, argued this week at the Supreme Court. We discuss the claim and the oral argument, and make some predictions. To get our other podcasts, click here.

The Armenian Church in Myanmar: A Follow-Up

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Photo from the BBC

A follow-up to last month’s post on the Armenian Orthodox church in Myanmar: This summer, the BBC did a lovely story about a 150-year old Armenian parish church in the city of Yangon, St. John the Baptist (above). Hardly any parishioners remained, the BBC said, maybe 10 people on a good Sunday. Most of the congregation were not Armenians, either, the Armenians having left Myanmar, with the British, decades before.

A small group of holdouts had continued to maintain the church, however, led by a priest, Father John Felix. Father John was not Armenian Orthodox, the story indicated, but Anglican. Nonetheless, the Armenian Church had, in an ecumenical gesture, invited him to use St. John the Baptist for the small number of faithful who remained, even though he had a very limited knowledge of the Orthodox liturgy. (Most of the parishioners had a very limited knowledge, too). Apparently he was starting to attract a following from among Christian believers of many communions.

The BBC got its information straight from Father John. It turns out, however, that he’s not really “Father” John at all. The Anglican archbishop says that John Felix was never ordained a priest, only a deacon, and that, for unspecified reasons, the Anglican Church no longer allows him to conduct religious services. How he ensconced himself at St. John the Baptist is a mystery. He apparently inserted himself a few years ago, after the last “full” member of the congregation passed away. The Armenian Church hierarchy seems not to have known about it. To be fair, they have many more pressing issues with which to contend.

This summer’s story drew a lot of attention. As I say, once the Anglicans found out about John Felix, they spread the word he wasn’t one of theirs. The story got noticed in Armenia as well. Last week, the Catholicos, or Patriarch, of the Armenian Church, Karekin II, visited Yangon to reconsecrate the altar and conduct a proper liturgy; a large crowd attended. The Catholicos also announced that henceforth an Orthodox priest from Calcutta would fly in on weekends to conduct liturgies at the church. As for John Felix, he’s indicated he intends to remain at the church and has refused to turn over the keys. The BBC says legal action seems likely.

The BBC has posted a video interview with John Felix. He seems like a nice enough man, and gamely tries to chant the Kyrie Eleison (in Armenian, Der Voghormia) to show his bona fides. But, if the BBC is to be believed, he’s been deceiving everyone for years. He has actually purported to conduct weddings and baptisms for unsuspecting parishioners. Is he well-meaning but misguided, or an out-and-out scoundrel? It’s impossible to tell. What a very strange story.

Video: Movsesian Lecture on Mideast Christians at Lanier Theological Library

For those who might be interested, the Lanier Theological Library has made available a video of my lecture last month, “Religious Freedom for Mideast Christians: Yesterday and Today.” In the lecture, I discuss the history of the Mideast’s Christian communities, their persecution today, and what Americans can do about it.

The video is below. Thanks again to Mark Lanier and everyone at the library for hosting me!

Dim Drums Throbbing, In the Hills Half Heard

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Today is the 443rd anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto

On Christians and the Open Letter to the Islamic State

Recently, a group of more than 120 Islamic law scholars, many of them from very prominent institutions in the Sunni world like Cairo’s Al Azhar University, signed an Open Letter to the leader of the Islamic State (aka IS, or ISIL, or ISIS), Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri (aka Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi). The letter sharply criticizes IS, arguing that most of its actions violate Islamic law. Among other things, the letter rejects IS’s declaration of a caliphate; its conception of jihad; its persecution of non-Muslims, including Christians and Yazidis; its atrocities against women and children; its killing of journalists and aid workers; and its destruction of the shrines of the prophets.

The Open Letter is a welcome development and its authors and signatories deserve credit. Western observers often criticize Muslim leaders for their failure to speak out against Islamist groups like IS, since the silence of Muslim leaders can be taken as assent. The Open Letter makes clear that IS does not represent the totality of Islam and that its Salafist interpretations are not the last word in fiqh. It’s valuable to have a critique of IS from within the Islamic law tradition itself.

And yet, if one reads the Open Letter closely, one sees that its conclusions are not all that Western observers might hope. At the First Things site, Ayman Ibrahim explores some of the letter’s ambiguities. For example, the scholars criticize IS’s attempt to reestablish the caliphate, not because the idea itself is outmoded, but because IS is too small to assert worldwide Muslim rule. “There is agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah,” the letter concedes. But a small group like IS cannot declare a caliphate all on its own. “In truth, the caliphate must emerge from a consensus of Muslim countries, organizations of Islamic scholars and Muslims across the globe.”

Well, what if IS ultimately does ultimately obtain support for its caliphate? Given the group’s meteoric success so far, perhaps IS feels optimistic and would like to give it a try. Would consensus make IS’s caliphate legitimate? And does the letter really mean to suggest that Muslims across the globe have a religious obligation to seek the restoration of some sort of caliphate? That’s certainly how it sounds. How about Muslims in the West?

Or take the treatment of Christians, a matter Ibrahim does not discuss. As most people know by now, IS has murdered or expelled Iraqi and Syrian Christians who refuse to agree to the terms of the dhimma, the classical Islamic law “agreement” in which Christians accept subordinate status and pay a poll tax called the jizya. The Open Letter sharply criticizes IS for these actions. “These Christians are not combatants against Islam or transgressors against it,” the letter protests, but “friends, neighbors and co-citizens. “

This defense of Christians from leading Muslim scholars is very helpful. But then the letter makes clear the Islamic law basis for the scholars’ critique: “From the legal perspective of Shari’ah,” it says, the Christians of Iraq and Syria “all fall under ancient agreements that are around 1400 years old, and the rulings of jihad do not apply to them.” As non-combatants, these Christians are subject to a smaller jizya than IS has assessed . This smaller jizya is a substitute for the zakat Muslims pay and is to be distributed among the whole population, including Christians on occasion, as a form of charity.

In other words, the scholars’ objection is not that IS has subjected Iraqi and Syrian Christians to the dhimma and imposed on them the jizya. Rather, the objection is that these Christians are already subject to the dhimma and that IS has no authority to impose new terms, and that IS is collecting the wrong form of jizya. To put it mildly, this reasoning is not likely to reassure Christians and encourage them to return to their homes — assuming those homes still exist.

Some readers will think I am caviling. But I really don’t think so. In law, reasons matter. As I say, the Open Letter is a welcome contribution to the debate over IS and the signers, some of whom have no doubt taken personal risk, deserve credit. But the reasoning of the letter — well, let’s just say it raises some serious questions.

Video of Panel Presentation on Religious Liberty

The Lanier Theological Library in Houston has posted a video of a panel on religious liberty that took place at the library earlier this month. Among other subjects, the panel addressed the rise of contemporary Islamism, the treatment of Christians in the Mideast, the prevalence of Islamic-law arbitration in Europe and the US, and the legality of American drone strikes on American citizens affiliated with Islamist groups. I participated in the panel, along with Mark Lanier (Founder, Lanier Theological Library), Dean Michael Simons (St. John’s), Professor James Hoffmeier (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Fr. Mario Arroyo (Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston). Take a look.